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The limits of Aestheticism

Robert O’Byrne and the compromised Beit Foundation.

Robert O’Byrne is an aesthete – possibly Ireland’s only one, a writer specialising in the fine and decorative arts. He is the author of more than a dozen books, among them ‘Luggala Days: the Story of a Guinness House’; a biography of Sir Hugh Lane; ‘A History of the Irish Georgian Society’; a ‘Dictionary of Living Irish Artists’ and ‘the Last Knight: A tribute to Desmond FitzGerald, 29th Knight of Glin’. In addition to really loving things that relate to the Guinness and FitzGerald Families and the Irish Georgian Society (IGS) which they have led, he writes a monthly column for Apollo magazine and also contributes to the quarterly Irish Arts Review. He publishes a blog called “The Irish Aesthete. This is not an oxymoron”. Tragically for O’Byrne, of course, it is. But this is the least of the issues currently challenging his sensibility.

The ascent to pure aestheticism inevitably took some time. After an international childhood and schooling in Gonzaga, during its own aesthetic epoch, he served in a Jesuit novitiate in the early 1980s. In 1986 O’Byrne became the first director of a pilot project in music promotion, Music Network, which some years ago scooped a U2 funding jackpot. In the 1990s he worked as a staff journalist for the Irish Times, often writing about fashion: “Robert O’Byrne’s three-part series on major trends for the season ahead: think long, think luxuriant, think languorous”. He scraped an extended niche for himself arbitrating style more generally: “the most shocking feature of the cluster of Carrickmines houses sold in Dublin last month for some £1 million each was not the price paid nor the speed with which the properties were reserved, but the unrelieved banality of their design”. At the height of the debate on one-off housing debate in the early 2000s he wrote – reflecting his peculiar if consistent focus – ignoring considerations of good planning or sustainability that: “the debate needs to be not about whether development should take place, but about the design and character of that development”. And sometimes he took his taste out of the stuffy walls of journalism onto the streets. In September 1998 he could be found launching ‘Dublin Style: An Insider’s Guide to Shopping’. In the mid to late 1990s he impurely served as the Times’ gossip columnist, hosting a horrible page at the back of the Weekend supplement that mirthlessly celebrated the country’s nouveaux glitterati. He also covered antique and art sales for the Irish Times, with some style.

The Irish Times still indeed allows him the occasional essay such as a recent erudite sashaying review of a book on the history of Irish wallpaper, for which all proceeds go to the IGS, though neither O’Byrne nor the Irish Times felt the need to declare his connection to the IGS.

O’Byrne’s prose is often original and the judgement sharp, in his columns and on his blog. The blog has a cohort of fans, often genuinely double-barrelled, who outdo one another in obsequiousness. Not unrepresentatively, during 2015 the Irish Aesthete will be visiting one Irish town every month – to berate its architectural neglect.

O’Byrne has lots of considered opinions. In a recent collection of essays concerning the FitzGeralds of Carton House, he was hammered by Dr Terry Dooley of Maynooth for criticising its late housing-estate strewn incarnation as one of those “ill considered conversions into spa hotels and golf resorts”.

However, his usual percipience can let him down as when he equivocated in the controversy over the recent removal of sculptural busts from the entrance hall at Bellamont Forest House in Cavan, despite the evidence proving them to be integral to the design of this internationally important house by Sir Edward Lovett Pearce.

Crucially, O’Byrne himself moved to the rarefied setting of Palladian Ardbraccan House near Navan where he lodges in one of the wings.

As befits an aesthete whose oeuvre so often touched on its members, and its causes, O’Byrne is Vice President of the Irish Georgian Society (IGS), a membership organisation whose purpose is to promote awareness and the protection of Ireland’s architectural heritage and decorative arts.

A fully illustrated book by Robert O’Byrne on the society’s first 50 years was published in 2008 and he has comprehensively ingratiated himself. If anything all had been looking well for his further elevation.

O’Byrne was until recently the IGS’s representative on the board of the Alfred Beit Foundation which owns the Palladian Russborough House in Co Wicklow.

Sir Alfred Lane Beit, honorary Irish citizen, was a British Conservative Party politician, art collector and philanthropist – nephew of Alfred Beit, a South African mining millionaire from whom he inherited a vast fortune including a large number of Old Master paintings.

In 1952, he and his wife, Clementine Mitford, moved the art collection to Ireland. It comprises many of the paintings assembled by the Beit family from the late nineteenth century. While he eventually presented the major works to the National Gallery of Ireland, the remaining collection, along with Russborough itself, was bequeathed to the Alfred Beit Foundation (ABF) which was established in 1976 with a board of trustees. The sale of 350 acres of land at Russborough in 1978 afforded an endowment of almost £400,000 or around €4m in current values.

It is not known what has become of this original endowment, but the ABF is known to have been struggling for some time, despite receiving regular handouts from the Apollo Foundation, a London-based trust associated with the Beits, and substantial grants from the Heritage Council and Fáilte Ireland. The ABF has been operating at an annual loss of €300,000 (2013). Certainly this is a problem but there is no sense the costs are being reviewed or that dynamic fund-raising is in place. A substantial salary is paid to a chief executive who oversees an uninspiring, if rising, 24,000 annual visitors to the house.

Russborough House
 Russborough House

In 2006 a collection of 62 early Italian bronzes was sold for €3.8m and fourteen oriental ceramics were sold for €1.2m as recently as November 2013.

A pair of rare eighteenth-century paintings by French artist Jacques de la Joue has recently been removed from where they hung in the saloon, and sold privately for an undisclosed sum, their strangely secretive sale presumably approved by O’Byrne and his fellow trustees.

In late April, Christie’s and the ABF made a joint announcement on a proposed auction on July 7 in London. The group of paintings that will be auctioned is led by two magnificent works on panel by Sir Peter Paul Rubens, Head of a bearded man(estimate:£2-3m) and Venus and Jupiter (estimate: £1.2- 1.8m). The group also includes one of the most celebrated Kermesse scenes by David Teniers the Younger (estimate: £1.2-1.8m), a rare religious work by Adriaen van Ostade, Adoration of the Shepherds (estimate: £600,000- 800,000), and a pair of Venetian views by Francesco Guardi (estimate: £300,000-500,000). A selection of pre-sale highlights will go on view in exhibitions at Christie’s in New York, followed by London and Hong Kong over the early summer.

The paintings have not been on public view for many years due to security concerns. Some were stolen (but later recovered) from the house, first in 1974 by an IRA gang led by British heiress Rose Dugdale, and again in 1986 by Dublin criminal (the “General”), Martin Cahill.

The board of the ABF “unanimously approved” the “painful but necessary decision” to sell the paintings at a meeting in late April, using as its justification precisely the same excuse used to explain previous sales. It had been said then that the monies raised would be used to “help secure the long-term future of Russborough, its demesne and its diverse collections so that the visiting public from both Ireland and abroad may appreciate and enjoy it for many decades to come”. The board includes nominees from the Royal Dublin Society; University College Dublin; Trinity College Dublin; the National Gallery of Ireland; An taisce and the IGS.

The estimate for the paintings is €10m but they may realise up to €20m given their provenance and quality.

Attempts have been made to justify the sale on grounds it is necessary to fund works to the eighteenth-century house at Russborough and create an endowment for the maintenance of the buildings, gardens and grounds. No costing has been made available for such capital works and extensive work has already been carried out in recent years, much of it with public funds. Indeed, paintings and furniture from the Milltown bequest to the National Gallery of Ireland, originally from Russborough, have been lent and are on display in the house, which was clearly considered in a fit condition to receive them.

The central issue is that selling off one part of a cultural endowment to pay for the maintenance or management of another is not a credible policy.

It is the more scandalous as the sale is not justified by any emergency but intended itself to create an endowment for the future.

Arguably sales were envisaged by Beit: the Memorandum of Association establishing the Foundation allows it to ‘sell, lease or otherwise deal with or dispose of the whole or part of the property or assets of the Foundation”. Sir Alfred himself, at the time of the Foundation’s establishment, sold a Reynolds portrait that had hung in the staircase hall, as well as a lot of land.

However, the ABF has maintained the unsustainable pattern of asset reduction, without providing any future security for the collection or the property.

An Taisce is seeking the intervention of Government and organisations concerned with culture, heritage and tourism in Ireland to achieve a partnership solution to secure the future of the entire Beit collection and of Russborough House and demesne, using Castletown, Co Kildare, as the model.

A legal action centring on the propriety of the process whereby the Director of the National Gallery, Sean Rainbird – who also of course serves the Beit Foundation, granted the export licence for the works, is in the air.

Most of the key decisions of the Beit Foundation are now taken by an axis led by its chair, Judith Woodward of the National Concert Hall, remembered by conservationists for her unsuccessful attempts to demolish the Real Tennis Court that adjoins the Concert Hall which was built by Sir Edward Guinness in 1885, in the 1990s; and Eamonn Ceannt, UCD’s Director of Capital Development, a key figure in the rapid expansion of the Belfield campus over recent years.

A notable dissident from the sales is Trinity’s Carmel O’Sullivan who claims her failure to attend the crucial meeting when the decision to sell was taken was because she was outmanoeuvred on the date.

An Taisce is looking for the resignation of its nominee, Consuelo O’Connor, a sister of one-time popular Lord Mayor of Dublin Carmencita Hederman, who has served since 1976 and is a former chairwoman of the organisation. She has feistily defended her role and is jealous of her position as the only board member who actually knew Beit.

The IGS has distanced itself from the decision and claimed the sale would “represent an irredeemable loss to our national cultural patrimony” and the paintings would be “lost forever to Ireland”.

Robert O’Byrne resigned after it became clear he would otherwise be pushed. The IGS only found out about the sale belatedly through the press; its board infuriated that it had not been informed of the decision by its representative whose terms of reference obliged him to serve the interests of the IGS. Its anger has been compounded by a presentation made by O’Byrne at the IGS’ ‘Art in the Country House’ Conference held in Dublin Castle on 23 April, just days before the sale of the pictures was announced, in which he criticised the unregulated issuing of export licences and decried the sales from country houses as the “beginning of the end”.

He posted a considered blog on 11th May, followed up by an online piece for Apollo, both of which drew angry comments from readers unimpressed by the author’s extraordinary failure to explicate his own role in the affair. The IGS was not available for comment when the Irish Times asked it on 11May but it seems his position as Vice-President (whatever about any advancement) is not in play – his fawning literary history having apparently trumped his aesthetico-ethical dishonour.

Michael Smith